Srihari Nageswaran Ravi
Meet Maha Elgenaidi, a well-established American Muslim advocate. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Islamic Networks Group (ING) and an author of training handbooks on outreach for American Muslims and training seminars for public institutions on developing cultural competency with the American Muslim community.
Recently, Muslim interviewed Maha on the impact of Islam on her American Muslim advocacy, the development of ING, and its more controversial approaches to her work. Maha shares her hopes for future generations of Muslim advocates.
Being the Executive Director of ING, what do you believe is your organization’s mission?
Peace-building. We started out by teaching Americans about Islam, which then evolved into doing the same work in the context of religious pluralism where we teach about Islam alongside people of other faiths, because we realized that the more Americans understand their own faith, the more they’re likely to understand Islam’s diversity in its interpretation by both historical and contemporary Muslims.
We’ve also branched out into anti-bias work by tackling Islamophobia in the context of other forms of bigotry, by looking at both the history of bigotry and racism and the interconnections between Islamophobia and different forms of bigotry such as anti-blackness and anti-Semitism.
Our stated mission now is to promote peace among all by fostering a deeper, more nuanced understanding of Muslims and other religious, racial/ethnic, and cultural communities, through teaching, learning, and engaging across differences.
How has your personal background informed your work and what aspects of your life have made you interested in Muslim advocacy?
I grew up in a secular Egyptian-Arab home where we didn’t practice or even learn about Islam. In fact, I was pretty cynical about religion in general. Growing up in the United States and watching how Muslims were portrayed in the media, in books, and in my own public education instilled in me biases against the religion and its people, even though I still identified as both Arab and Muslim.
It wasn’t until I read the Quran for the first time in my life during the first Persian Gulf War in the early 90’s that I made a 180-degree turn and started exploring both the community and the religion further by first reading several books and then meeting and participating in the Muslim American community. A year later, after studying how the community was organized, I started ING to have Muslim Americans teaching other Americans about Islam, which is exactly what we continue to do today.
What actions have you taken that may be deemed controversial, but that you believed were important in furthering peace and justice for the Muslim community? Why so?
Everything we did was first deemed controversial! Controversy is never-ending in my line of work. If I had to name the most controversial work we’ve done, it is continuing to work with the Jewish community despite the criticism and threats and charges of “selling out Palestine.”
Unless you work with pro-Palestinian organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, which is a political organization and something we’re not, then you’re considered to be selling out. Some Muslims miss the fact that all organizations evolve over time and are not monolithic. They’re not going to change without our engagement with them, which is something I strongly believe in. Unless the organization is a hate group or is fomenting bigotry against a group of people, then we shouldn’t be afraid of engaging with them if our interests intersect.
Have you experienced any setbacks in your advocacy and if so, how have they affected you? What have you learned from them?
I’ve experienced many setbacks from the very start of the organization as an independent-thinking woman who was accustomed to leading and managing before I became active in the Muslim community and as a virtual unknown, so my experience was probably similar to that of a convert. I was first accused of being a spy for Mossad, the FBI, and the CIA, and these rumors lasted for more than a decade and had a devastating effect on funding. I became so poor at one point that I didn’t even have enough money for food or gas for my car. But I didn’t give up, and people didn’t know my circumstances because I still had my old nice clothes from my days of corporate work. Then they accused me of desiring fame and fortune even though I was neither paid nor the subject of any of the media interviews I initiated for community members with news agencies. Then came the accusation of the work itself having no value, until 9/11 happened and then everyone was doing education and interfaith work and seeking our ING material.
Honestly, I still don’t feel appreciated by my own community, nor is the work of education and engagement taken as seriously as is civil rights work, for example, or political engagement. That doesn’t make me happy, but it doesn’t stop me from doing the work because I am clear on my motivations and objectives which have always been about peace-making, and this overrides any criticism or lack of appreciation. My faith in God and worship and the impact of our work based on surveys from our clients is what sustains me, quite honestly.
What advice would you give to young Muslims and especially young Muslim women who are interested in interfaith/intercultural, Muslim-centered advocacy?
To be first and foremost clear on your intentions for why you want to do this work. If it is to convert others to our religion, then this is not the work for you. But if you’re humble and sincere and your motives are to build bridges based on an Islamic theology of pluralism that sees everyone as potential friends of God, who might be nearer to God than yourself, then that’s the prerequisite for doing interfaith/intercultural work.
For women who are working for male-centered organizations it’s an easier lift. But if you’re independent and starting out on your own, then it’s a much heavier lift because it’s very challenging for women to fundraise in the Muslim community, as it is for women to raise funds anywhere, and that’s part of the reason why we’re starting an endowment to carry this work and support the people who initiate it in their local towns and regions.
In my opinion, education about Islam and interfaith-intercultural work for peace are the most important works we could be doing as Muslims apart from charitable works in feeding the hungry and taking care of people. And if we’re going to fight for civil rights, then let’s do it for all marginalized groups and not just ourselves and make sure our political system is just and fair for all.
To learn more about Maha and ING, you can visit the organization’s site here.
About AAJA’s Muslim American Task Force
The Asian American Journalists Association’s mission is to ensure accurate and fair coverage of AAPI communities and, more broadly, communities of color. More than 60 percent of the world’s Muslim population is in Asia and, as such, AAJA created a task force to develop resources for journalists covering Muslim/Muslim American communities and ongoing changes to U.S. immigration policies. The task force seeks to improve coverage of Muslim American issues and serve as a resource to journalists covering Muslim American communities. Learn more at aaja.org.